Mapping provides a better basis for targeted regulation

Detailed soil mapping in different types of catchment areas and the development of new environmental management tools will help agriculture to put a more targeted nitrogen regulation into practice.

2018.10.31 | Janne Hansen

In a new project, researchers will map soil characteristics in widely different types of catchment areas and in great soil depth. The aim is better targeted regulation. Photo: Janne Hansen

Researchers from Aarhus University are partners in a new research and innovation project that will develop new methods to minimise nitrogen pollution of the Danish aquatic environment while at the same time creating better production conditions for farmers.   

The project, which is led by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), will develop tools for agriculture so that targeted regulation can be more easily translated into practice. This will take place with the aid of innovative environmental technologies and development of new methods for collaborating on intelligent regulation of farmers’ nitrogen application so that both the environment and farmers’ finances are taken into consideration. 

In the project, the researchers will map field characteristics in a wide range of catchment area types and in great soil depth. They will do this by developing, testing and validating techniques, models and tools to create a picture of the subsurface and the processes related to nitrogen transport. 

The project will generate knowledge about the characteristics of the soil with precision down to a few metres. This is crucial for making precise predictions of water and nitrogen pathways and conversion of nitrogen on its path from the individual field to groundwater and waterways. Importantly, the project will also investigate how such new knowledge can implemented in practice, since previous research projects have demonstrated that this aspect can pose significant challenges. 

The soil removes nitrogen

When the farmer applies manure to his crops, more nitrogen than the plants can absorb can accumulate. The extent of this surplus depends on several factors, including weather, crop type and catch crops, and the nitrogen surplus that is leached from the fields can end up in the aquatic environment. 

On its way through the soil, some nitrogen is converted naturally by geochemical processes. Depending on the geochemical composition and the pathway of the water through the soil, more or less of the nitrogen is removed and thus avoids being leached to the aquatic environment. To quantify this, the project will develop mapping technologies and a total concept that can be used to determine a field’s natural ability to retain nitrogen. 

The combination of knowledge from various scientific fields is a particularly strength of the project with relation to development and implementation of a total mapping concept for targeted nitrogen regulation. Previous projects have shown how difficult it can be to attain a sufficient, collective knowledge base for making decisions about a more targeted use of nitrogen fertilisation at the detailed catchment area level. The project combines expertise within agronomy and agroecology, geophysics, hydrogeology, geochemistry, modelling, software development, communication, economics, and business development. 

Mapping on a practical level

Researchers from the Department of Agroecology are taking part in several of the project’s work packages and are leading the work package involved with development of targeted nitrogen regulation in selected demonstration catchment areas. The tools and concept from the project will be implemented in this work package, and optimal regulation of nitrogen will be developed in collaboration with farmers, catchment area advisers, other advisers, waterworks, authorities and other stakeholders. 

One of the aims of this work package is to map how the various stakeholders perceive pros and cons of the concept. Another aim is to investigate how successful the use of detailed soil mapping is on a practical level, and identify the types of farms and farmers that may (or may not) find benefit in the new tools – or that perhaps do not want to use the detailed information that the project will generate.    

  - We have learned from previous research that implementation of a more targeted regulation can be difficult in practice, and that there is a great need for developing a better knowledge base, says the leader of the work package, Section Manager and Professor Tommy Dalgaard from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University. He continues: 

  - The farmer needs to know where in the field to apply fertiliser so he can achieve optimal yield while still complying with environmental legislation. This is where a more detailed designation of areas with low or high risk of leaching can be of assistance in efficient management of the nitrogen resource so that agriculture can live up to the local differentiated requirements for reduced impact on the environment and maintain an optimal income from farming.


Facts about the project

Name: MapField

Funding: 18.9 million DKK from Innovation Fund Denmark

Total budget: 29.7 million DKK

Partners: Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) (project leader), Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen, Environmental Protection Agency, Seges, Aarhus GeoSoftware, NIRAS, Central Denmark Region, and the Danish Association of Consulting Engineers

Duration: Three years and three months (1 October 2018-31 December 2021).


For more information please contact

Sektion Manager, Professor Tommy Dalgaard, Department of Agroecology, email: tommy.dalgaard@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7746, mobile: +45 2070 6132

Agro, Crops, DCA